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Oral-History:John Coales

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John Flavell Coales offers a view of the British Navy’s contributions to radar development, since the 1930s, in this oral history. Coales, the son of a lecturer in electrical engineering, graduated from a Cambridge boarding school and had hoped to become a mathematician, but instead he excelled in physics. He attended university at Sydney Sussex College, where he again fell into physics by way of math. Forced onto the job market in 1929, because his skill in conducting experiments was found to be lacking at Cambridge, Coales joined the Admiralty Scientific Civil Service, which led him by chance to electronics and radar R&D for the Royal Navy. Coales’s contributions to the radar project, digital computer development, and control engineering, characterized his long career with the Admiralty Scientific Service, the Elliots’ Boreham Wood laboratory, and finally his academic work and research at Cambridge University.  
 
John Flavell Coales offers a view of the British Navy’s contributions to radar development, since the 1930s, in this oral history. Coales, the son of a lecturer in electrical engineering, graduated from a Cambridge boarding school and had hoped to become a mathematician, but instead he excelled in physics. He attended university at Sydney Sussex College, where he again fell into physics by way of math. Forced onto the job market in 1929, because his skill in conducting experiments was found to be lacking at Cambridge, Coales joined the Admiralty Scientific Civil Service, which led him by chance to electronics and radar R&D for the Royal Navy. Coales’s contributions to the radar project, digital computer development, and control engineering, characterized his long career with the Admiralty Scientific Service, the Elliots’ Boreham Wood laboratory, and finally his academic work and research at Cambridge University.  
  
The structure of the interview follows Coales’s long and fruitful career. Highlights of the story include his efforts to shed light upon the contributions the Royal Navy made to radar development. These efforts were long unrecognized due to the classified status of the Navy’s work. In addition, Coales discusses in detail the repository of new archival sources on the Admiralty’s radar work at the Churchill College archives at Cambridge. Coales concludes the interview with an interesting talk about his contributions to the early computer industry and his views on the relationship between the IEE and the IEEE.  
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The structure of the interview follows Coales’s long and fruitful career. Highlights of the story include his efforts to shed light upon the contributions the Royal Navy made to [[Radar|radar]] development. These efforts were long unrecognized due to the classified status of the Navy’s work. In addition, Coales discusses in detail the repository of new archival sources on the Admiralty’s radar work at the Churchill College archives at Cambridge. Coales concludes the interview with an interesting talk about his contributions to the early computer industry and his views on the relationship between the IEE and the [[IEEE History|IEEE]].  
 
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== About the Interview  ==
 
== About the Interview  ==
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JOHN F. COALES: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray, Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 21 March 1994  
 
JOHN F. COALES: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray, Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 21 March 1994  
  
Interview # 192 for the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. and Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey
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Interview # 192 for the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.  
 
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== Copyright Statement  ==
 
== Copyright Statement  ==
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This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.  
 
This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.  
  
Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, Rutgers - the State University, 39 Union Street, New Brunswick, NJ 08901-8538 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.  
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Request for permission to quote for publication should be addressed to the IEEE History Center Oral History Program, IEEE History Center at Stevens Institute of Technology, Castle Point on Hudson, Hoboken, NJ 07030 USA. It should include identification of the specific passages to be quoted, anticipated use of the passages, and identification of the user.  
  
 
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:  
 
It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:  
  
John Flavell Coales, an oral history conducted in 1994 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ, USA.  
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John Flavell Coales, an oral history conducted in 1994 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.  
  
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== Interview  ==
  
== Interview ==
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Interview: John Flavell Coales
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Interviewer: William Aspray
  
Interview: John Flavell Coales<br>Interviewer: William Aspray<br>Date: 21 March 1994  
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Date: 21 March 1994  
  
 
=== Role of Royal Navy in Radar Development  ===
 
=== Role of Royal Navy in Radar Development  ===
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'''Coales:'''  
 
'''Coales:'''  
  
I thought you ought to know about what we've done on the development of naval radar, specifically for the Royal Navy. This work isn't generally acknowledged because the RAF people got all the publicity for radar in the U.K. After all, the Navy is always supposed to be the silent service anyway. There is a book called ''Radar at Sea''; it's by Derek Howes. There will be another two-volume monographic work written by myself and some of my colleagues who were actually working on radar in the war, which is more specialized and technical. It will hopefully come out at the end of this year.<ref>Published in two volumes by the MacMillan Press, London, 1995.</ref> The point is thanks to one Captain Jackson, later Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Henry Jackson, a fellow of the Royal Society, already had wireless going in a man-of-war, before Marconi had his patent. He saw that it was going to be important to the Navy. Because of this, and because of his determination, wireless was of very great importance to the Navy.  
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I thought you ought to know about what we've done on the development of [[Radar|naval radar]], specifically for the Royal Navy. This work isn't generally acknowledged because the RAF people got all the publicity for radar in the U.K. After all, the Navy is always supposed to be the silent service anyway. There is a book called ''Radar at Sea''; it's by Derek Howes. There will be another two-volume monographic work written by myself and some of my colleagues who were actually working on radar in the war, which is more specialized and technical. It will hopefully come out at the end of this year.<ref>Published in two volumes by the MacMillan Press, London, 1995.</ref> The point is thanks to one Captain Jackson, later Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Henry Jackson, a fellow of the Royal Society, already had wireless going in a man-of-war, before Marconi had his patent. He saw that it was going to be important to the Navy. Because of this, and because of his determination, wireless was of very great importance to the Navy.  
  
 
They set up an experimental department in the torpedo school in Portsmouth, back in 1906. In the First World War, they recruited quite a lot of people, scientists and an amazing number of "able-bodied seamen," to work on wireless. This had become quite a big organization, and it was moved into the Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth in 1919, as part of what became His Majesty's Signal School. This was where all the officers and ratings were trained for communications in the Navy. Signaling, of all sorts — wireless, visual, semaphore — all of these things, were all done there.  
 
They set up an experimental department in the torpedo school in Portsmouth, back in 1906. In the First World War, they recruited quite a lot of people, scientists and an amazing number of "able-bodied seamen," to work on wireless. This had become quite a big organization, and it was moved into the Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth in 1919, as part of what became His Majesty's Signal School. This was where all the officers and ratings were trained for communications in the Navy. Signaling, of all sorts — wireless, visual, semaphore — all of these things, were all done there.  
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From 1919 to 1939, every piece of radio equipment that was used by the Royal Navy was developed and designed in His Majesty's Signal School. The Signal School also produced manufacturing drawings of the equipment, which was then procured from industry by Signal School engineers. The equipment was then brought into the Signal School for testing and then sent out to the dockyards where ship builders installed the equipment under supervision of Signal School engineers. The other services didn't have anything like that. The only comparable set-up in this country was in the Marconi Co., Ltd. and in Standard Telephone and Cables, Ltd., part of ITT.  
 
From 1919 to 1939, every piece of radio equipment that was used by the Royal Navy was developed and designed in His Majesty's Signal School. The Signal School also produced manufacturing drawings of the equipment, which was then procured from industry by Signal School engineers. The equipment was then brought into the Signal School for testing and then sent out to the dockyards where ship builders installed the equipment under supervision of Signal School engineers. The other services didn't have anything like that. The only comparable set-up in this country was in the Marconi Co., Ltd. and in Standard Telephone and Cables, Ltd., part of ITT.  
  
So the organization was all there, you see, with experienced scientists and engineers. Now the Navy has always tended to go its own way, so although Watson Watt tried very hard to get hold of the work done for the Navy, the Admiralty would not let him do this. So right from the very start in 1935, we started developing the radar for the Navy. One of our engineers went to Bawdsey— Otfordness it probably was then —and when he came back we set up a small party to work on it. We made a bit of a hash of it for the first couple of years, then we had a great reorganization in 1937, and from there we didn't look back.  
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So the organization was all there, you see, with experienced scientists and engineers. Now the Navy has always tended to go its own way, so although [[Robert Watson-Watt|Watson Watt]] tried very hard to get hold of the work done for the Navy, the Admiralty would not let him do this. So right from the very start in 1935, we started developing the radar for the Navy. One of our engineers went to Bawdsey— Otfordness it probably was then —and when he came back we set up a small party to work on it. We made a bit of a hash of it for the first couple of years, then we had a great reorganization in 1937, and from there we didn't look back.  
  
We were much quicker at getting stuff developed, built into the ships at sea because we could call on industry. We already knew all the people in industry, we were already in cahoots with them. Our engineers and I knew a lot of leading people in industry before the war. That's why we had the first 10 centimeter set. The early work was done at Swanage. As soon as the magnetrons were available we got them. Our people got on it and got it built, and within well under a year, they were going out to sea in the battle of the Atlantic.  
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We were much quicker at getting stuff developed, built into the ships at sea because we could call on industry. We already knew all the people in industry, we were already in cahoots with them. Our engineers and I knew a lot of leading people in industry before the war. That's why we had the first 10 centimeter set. The early work was done at Swanage. As soon as the [[Cavity Magnetron|magnetrons]] were available we got them. Our people got on it and got it built, and within well under a year, they were going out to sea in the battle of the Atlantic.  
  
 
That's why we have written it down. So far it is the only published account that deals with the history of the development, and the operational use in the war. There are other splendid works, but they do not focus on the research and development. We have in fact got this archive, which will go into the archive center at Churchill College, Cambridge. <ref>The archives are now in Churchill College Archive Centre.</ref>  
 
That's why we have written it down. So far it is the only published account that deals with the history of the development, and the operational use in the war. There are other splendid works, but they do not focus on the research and development. We have in fact got this archive, which will go into the archive center at Churchill College, Cambridge. <ref>The archives are now in Churchill College Archive Centre.</ref>  
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Yes. But we in the Navy, the Admiralty, were in a strong position because we knew all the suppliers before the war. We had procured naval equipment from them. They used to come see us. We had a man — old Josephs of Aeronautical and General Instruments — who used to come scouting for business, you see. We also knew Spordberg at BTH. We were in a very favorable position thanks to this history of what went on before the war. When we knew we had to go out and get these sets in a hurry — In October of 1939 the Admiralty said they wanted a close range gunnery set. I had already been in touch with McGaw at Wembley, concerning the magnetron and the communication development, which I had inherited in 1937. By the end of 1939, we had done a great deal together and in September 1938 I had happened to see the valves there, which had to be modified, and which started the CVD organization in fact. We also had work going on at the GEC telephone works at Coventry. We knew we had to use a Thyratron, but we found that it required modifications, so we got BTH, who were the experts on Thyratrons working on developing a suitable Thyratron. Naturally they would also make the modulators, which also had to be specially developed.  
 
Yes. But we in the Navy, the Admiralty, were in a strong position because we knew all the suppliers before the war. We had procured naval equipment from them. They used to come see us. We had a man — old Josephs of Aeronautical and General Instruments — who used to come scouting for business, you see. We also knew Spordberg at BTH. We were in a very favorable position thanks to this history of what went on before the war. When we knew we had to go out and get these sets in a hurry — In October of 1939 the Admiralty said they wanted a close range gunnery set. I had already been in touch with McGaw at Wembley, concerning the magnetron and the communication development, which I had inherited in 1937. By the end of 1939, we had done a great deal together and in September 1938 I had happened to see the valves there, which had to be modified, and which started the CVD organization in fact. We also had work going on at the GEC telephone works at Coventry. We knew we had to use a Thyratron, but we found that it required modifications, so we got BTH, who were the experts on Thyratrons working on developing a suitable Thyratron. Naturally they would also make the modulators, which also had to be specially developed.  
  
The display presented a challenge because it was for a close-range set, and we hadn't any automatic strobes or anything like that in those days. It was all done by measuring on a cathode ray tube face, so you needed a linear scale. I knew at close range I'd have to go to a 12-inch cathode ray tube. There was only one place in the country; that was Cossors. Fortunately, I knew L. H. Bedford, the only firm which had a 12-inch CRT. So we had to go to Cossors to develop that. He was very uncertain as to whether such a display could be developed. But they did it, and they produced the display. We were in trouble over the receivers. In the end, we got Marconi's to work on the receivers. We also needed new aerials, and new cable. Fortunately Pirellis' had come up with a polythene insulated cable, and we got Willis Jackson doing the measurements on it up at Manchester. We also got them to do the dipoles. Every ruddy thing was new! We had to make sure we could maintain a steady power supply, so we had to have automatic [[Transformers|transformers]] to maintain the voltage. We found a small firm called Advanced Components, to do that work. We knew and we found people. If we wanted something, I would ask my procurement people for it, and they would go out and find it somewhere. We found people who made permawood, which as you know was impregnated wood. That's how it was done, orders were put out to various suppliers for all the different components.  
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The display presented a challenge because it was for a close-range set, and we hadn't any automatic strobes or anything like that in those days. It was all done by measuring on a cathode ray tube face, so you needed a linear scale. I knew at close range I'd have to go to a 12-inch cathode ray tube. There was only one place in the country; that was Cossors. Fortunately, I knew L. H. Bedford, the only firm which had a 12-inch CRT. So we had to go to Cossors to develop that. He was very uncertain as to whether such a display could be developed. But they did it, and they produced the display. We were in trouble over the receivers. In the end, we got [[Guglielmo Marconi|Marconi's]] to work on the receivers. We also needed new aerials, and new cable. Fortunately Pirellis' had come up with a polythene insulated cable, and we got Willis Jackson doing the measurements on it up at Manchester. We also got them to do the dipoles. Every ruddy thing was new! We had to make sure we could maintain a steady power supply, so we had to have automatic [[Transformers|transformers]] to maintain the voltage. We found a small firm called Advanced Components, to do that work. We knew and we found people. If we wanted something, I would ask my procurement people for it, and they would go out and find it somewhere. We found people who made permawood, which as you know was impregnated wood. That's how it was done, orders were put out to various suppliers for all the different components.  
  
 
Just to give you an idea of the rate at which we operated. The Admiralty first asked for the set in October 1939. They wanted it for barrage fire at the dive bombers, using the main armaments and close-range weapons. They wanted something that would give them a range from 5,000 yards down. In February we were able to put on a demonstration at the anti-aircraft range at Portsmouth. Stephen Roskill and Kay Eddon came and said, "This is just what we want, go ahead." We got the letter of approval at the beginning of April, and orders were immediately put out to all these suppliers for 200 sets. By July this was increased to 900 sets. By December, we had two of the sets completed and installed in King George IV and Southdown, a sloop, and I was doing trials at sea in December. That was the sort of rate we had to move work at.  
 
Just to give you an idea of the rate at which we operated. The Admiralty first asked for the set in October 1939. They wanted it for barrage fire at the dive bombers, using the main armaments and close-range weapons. They wanted something that would give them a range from 5,000 yards down. In February we were able to put on a demonstration at the anti-aircraft range at Portsmouth. Stephen Roskill and Kay Eddon came and said, "This is just what we want, go ahead." We got the letter of approval at the beginning of April, and orders were immediately put out to all these suppliers for 200 sets. By July this was increased to 900 sets. By December, we had two of the sets completed and installed in King George IV and Southdown, a sloop, and I was doing trials at sea in December. That was the sort of rate we had to move work at.  
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Of course, priorities in signal school or in ASE had to be agreed upon in the Admiralty. Procurement had to be dealt with by the Signal Department or the Director of Naval Ordinance. But in the early days of the war, there was by and large no red tape. We just went and got on with it; there wasn't anything to stop us. As John Rawlinson and I used to joke, most of the equipment out in the fleet was on our slop chits. We signed for the stuff. It was all terribly easy.  
 
Of course, priorities in signal school or in ASE had to be agreed upon in the Admiralty. Procurement had to be dealt with by the Signal Department or the Director of Naval Ordinance. But in the early days of the war, there was by and large no red tape. We just went and got on with it; there wasn't anything to stop us. As John Rawlinson and I used to joke, most of the equipment out in the fleet was on our slop chits. We signed for the stuff. It was all terribly easy.  
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<p><flashmp3>192_-_coales_-_clip_1.mp3</flashmp3></p>
  
 
This was because of the whole naval situation. You see, when I was in the service the ghost of Nelson still walked in the Navy. The captain in a ship was master in his own ship. When he was captain of the flagship, if he thought it was dangerous to go to sea even the admiral couldn't make him go. The captain was in charge. And this attitude went right through the Navy. "What the captain says goes." If the captain's on your side, no one can say you "Nay." And the curious thing—very, very curious — shows how important this was to the Navy. In those days, before the war, appointments were all made personally by the Second Sea Lord. The captain of His Majesty's Signal School was always a senior captain to the Director of the Signal Department. He was higher on the captain's list. So the captain of the gunnery school was also senior to the Director of Naval Ordinance. This meant that if DSD sent down a silly request to Signal School, asking us to do something which we really seemed daft, we would tell the experimental commander. He would tell the signal school captain that the request was daft. The captain would say, "We shall get to DSD on the blower," and that's the last you would hear of it. That literally happened. This was the attitude in the Navy. I was expected to get on and do things myself.  
 
This was because of the whole naval situation. You see, when I was in the service the ghost of Nelson still walked in the Navy. The captain in a ship was master in his own ship. When he was captain of the flagship, if he thought it was dangerous to go to sea even the admiral couldn't make him go. The captain was in charge. And this attitude went right through the Navy. "What the captain says goes." If the captain's on your side, no one can say you "Nay." And the curious thing—very, very curious — shows how important this was to the Navy. In those days, before the war, appointments were all made personally by the Second Sea Lord. The captain of His Majesty's Signal School was always a senior captain to the Director of the Signal Department. He was higher on the captain's list. So the captain of the gunnery school was also senior to the Director of Naval Ordinance. This meant that if DSD sent down a silly request to Signal School, asking us to do something which we really seemed daft, we would tell the experimental commander. He would tell the signal school captain that the request was daft. The captain would say, "We shall get to DSD on the blower," and that's the last you would hear of it. That literally happened. This was the attitude in the Navy. I was expected to get on and do things myself.  
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Jim Ham at Toronto — well, he wasn't one of my research students, Davidson at Toronto and Murray Wonham. My former students are all over the world — Indians, Sri Lankans, Australians. But the truth of the matter is that good research simply depends on good teams. And the good teams depend on one or two outstanding people in them. Then the research progresses. If you are lucky to be the leader of that, for some reason which is inexplicable — Clearly, one has something, a little bit of talent of some sort, but there's a great deal of luck in this. This is all I'm saying. It's all a question of the thing coming right at some stage. Provided you can get a few good people together, it will then grow. That's what happened at Elliotts. After two years we were two hundred people. After four years we were four hundred. And we had a terrific reputation.  
 
Jim Ham at Toronto — well, he wasn't one of my research students, Davidson at Toronto and Murray Wonham. My former students are all over the world — Indians, Sri Lankans, Australians. But the truth of the matter is that good research simply depends on good teams. And the good teams depend on one or two outstanding people in them. Then the research progresses. If you are lucky to be the leader of that, for some reason which is inexplicable — Clearly, one has something, a little bit of talent of some sort, but there's a great deal of luck in this. This is all I'm saying. It's all a question of the thing coming right at some stage. Provided you can get a few good people together, it will then grow. That's what happened at Elliotts. After two years we were two hundred people. After four years we were four hundred. And we had a terrific reputation.  
  
Similarly at Cambridge, I was very fortunate. I had a few people and they didn't resent me or anything, they got on with me. They had a bit of faith in me, I don't know why, and then we made our name. One of the things I wanted to work on was non-linear control systems. One of my first research students was John Barrett. He did some seminal work on this, and we published a report. This work was funded by the Ministry of Supply money, which I had to get me going when we started. There were a number of copies of this report in the library at MIT, which were in continual use. Barrett was then able to work with Lotfi Zadeh at Columbia for a year. We were just lucky. We were well known. People wanted to come and see: many of them commonwealth fellows.  
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Similarly at Cambridge, I was very fortunate. I had a few people and they didn't resent me or anything, they got on with me. They had a bit of faith in me, I don't know why, and then we made our name. One of the things I wanted to work on was non-linear control systems. One of my first research students was John Barrett. He did some seminal work on this, and we published a report. This work was funded by the Ministry of Supply money, which I had to get me going when we started. There were a number of copies of this report in the library at MIT, which were in continual use. Barrett was then able to work with [[Lotfi A. Zadeh|Lotfi Zadeh]] at Columbia for a year. We were just lucky. We were well known. People wanted to come and see: many of them commonwealth fellows.  
  
 
'''Aspray:'''  
 
'''Aspray:'''  
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'''Aspray:'''  
 
'''Aspray:'''  
  
Let me change topics quite drastically. You mentioned that you could tell me something about the relations over time between IEE and IEEE. Do you want to remark about that?  
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Let me change topics quite drastically. You mentioned that you could tell me something about the relations over time between IEE and [[IEEE History|IEEE]]. Do you want to remark about that?  
  
 
'''Coales:'''  
 
'''Coales:'''  
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'''Coales:'''  
 
'''Coales:'''  
  
I see a little bit of them now and again. I think the IEEE should take the view that the IEE is, after all, a well-established institution. It's the biggest institution in the world after the IEEE. Therefore, they needn't worry about what goes on here, but just keep friendly relations with IEE. This was the attitude, without any question, when Hal Chestnut and Ivan Getting were presidents. We worked together over the years very well. We don't in fact clash in other parts of the world, as a rule. We leave most parts of the world to the IEEE, because their organization, in general is better in other parts of the world than ours is, I think.  
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I see a little bit of them now and again. I think the IEEE should take the view that the IEE is, after all, a well-established institution. It's the biggest institution in the world after the IEEE. Therefore, they needn't worry about what goes on here, but just keep friendly relations with IEE. This was the attitude, without any question, when [[Harold Chestnut|Hal Chestnut]] and [[Ivan Getting|Ivan Getting]] were [[Presidents of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE)|presidents]]. We worked together over the years very well. We don't in fact clash in other parts of the world, as a rule. We leave most parts of the world to the IEEE, because their organization, in general is better in other parts of the world than ours is, I think.  
  
 
=== Notes added by interviewee:  ===
 
=== Notes added by interviewee:  ===
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<references />  
 
<references />  
  
[[Category:People_and_organizations]] [[Category:Engineers]] [[Category:Inventors]] [[Category:Research_and_development_labs]] [[Category:Universities]] [[Category:Business,_management_&_industry|Category:Business,_management_&amp;_industry]] [[Category:International_collaboration]] [[Category:Research_and_development_management]] [[Category:Culture_and_society]] [[Category:Defense_&_security|Category:Defense_&amp;_security]] [[Category:World_War_II]] [[Category:Education]] [[Category:Educational_institutions]] [[Category:International_affairs_&_development|Category:International_affairs_&amp;_development]] [[Category:Law_&_government|Category:Law_&amp;_government]] [[Category:Engineering_profession]] [[Category:Engineering_education]] [[Category:Professional_societies]] [[Category:Environment,_geoscience_&_remote_sensing|Category:Environment,_geoscience_&amp;_remote_sensing]] [[Category:Marine_technology]] [[Category:Marine_equipment]] [[Category:Radar]] [[Category:Radar_applications]] [[Category:Computers_and_information_processing]] [[Category:IEEE]] [[Category:Computer_architecture]]
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[[Category:People and organizations|Coales]] [[Category:Engineers|Coales]] [[Category:Inventors|Coales]] [[Category:Research and development labs|Coales]] [[Category:Universities|Coales]] [[Category:Business, management & industry|Coales]] [[Category:International collaboration|Coales]] [[Category:Research and development management|Coales]] [[Category:Culture and society|Coales]] [[Category:Defense & security|Coales]] [[Category:World War II|Coales]] [[Category:Education|Coales]] [[Category:Educational institutions|Coales]] [[Category:International affairs & development|Coales]] [[Category:Law & government|Coales]] [[Category:Engineering profession|Coales]] [[Category:Engineering education|Coales]] [[Category:Professional societies|Coales]] [[Category:Environment, geoscience & remote sensing|Coales]] [[Category:Marine technology|Coales]] [[Category:Marine equipment|Coales]] [[Category:Radar|Coales]] [[Category:Radar applications|Coales]] [[Category:Computers and information processing|Coales]] [[Category:IEEE|Coales]] [[Category:Computer architecture|Coales]] [[Category:News|Coales]]

Revision as of 16:35, 30 June 2014

Contents

About John F. Coales

John Flavell Coales offers a view of the British Navy’s contributions to radar development, since the 1930s, in this oral history. Coales, the son of a lecturer in electrical engineering, graduated from a Cambridge boarding school and had hoped to become a mathematician, but instead he excelled in physics. He attended university at Sydney Sussex College, where he again fell into physics by way of math. Forced onto the job market in 1929, because his skill in conducting experiments was found to be lacking at Cambridge, Coales joined the Admiralty Scientific Civil Service, which led him by chance to electronics and radar R&D for the Royal Navy. Coales’s contributions to the radar project, digital computer development, and control engineering, characterized his long career with the Admiralty Scientific Service, the Elliots’ Boreham Wood laboratory, and finally his academic work and research at Cambridge University.

The structure of the interview follows Coales’s long and fruitful career. Highlights of the story include his efforts to shed light upon the contributions the Royal Navy made to radar development. These efforts were long unrecognized due to the classified status of the Navy’s work. In addition, Coales discusses in detail the repository of new archival sources on the Admiralty’s radar work at the Churchill College archives at Cambridge. Coales concludes the interview with an interesting talk about his contributions to the early computer industry and his views on the relationship between the IEE and the IEEE.

About the Interview

JOHN F. COALES: An Interview Conducted by William Aspray, Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, 21 March 1994

Interview # 192 for the Center for the History of Electrical Engineering, The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.

Copyright Statement

This manuscript is being made available for research purposes only. All literary rights in the manuscript, including the right to publish, are reserved to the IEEE History Center. No part of the manuscript may be quoted for publication without the written permission of the Director of IEEE History Center.

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It is recommended that this oral history be cited as follows:

John Flavell Coales, an oral history conducted in 1994 by William Aspray, IEEE History Center, Hoboken, NJ, USA.

Interview

Interview: John Flavell Coales

Interviewer: William Aspray

Date: 21 March 1994

Role of Royal Navy in Radar Development

Coales:

I thought you ought to know about what we've done on the development of naval radar, specifically for the Royal Navy. This work isn't generally acknowledged because the RAF people got all the publicity for radar in the U.K. After all, the Navy is always supposed to be the silent service anyway. There is a book called Radar at Sea; it's by Derek Howes. There will be another two-volume monographic work written by myself and some of my colleagues who were actually working on radar in the war, which is more specialized and technical. It will hopefully come out at the end of this year.[1] The point is thanks to one Captain Jackson, later Admiral of the Fleet, Sir Henry Jackson, a fellow of the Royal Society, already had wireless going in a man-of-war, before Marconi had his patent. He saw that it was going to be important to the Navy. Because of this, and because of his determination, wireless was of very great importance to the Navy.

They set up an experimental department in the torpedo school in Portsmouth, back in 1906. In the First World War, they recruited quite a lot of people, scientists and an amazing number of "able-bodied seamen," to work on wireless. This had become quite a big organization, and it was moved into the Royal Naval Barracks in Portsmouth in 1919, as part of what became His Majesty's Signal School. This was where all the officers and ratings were trained for communications in the Navy. Signaling, of all sorts — wireless, visual, semaphore — all of these things, were all done there.

From 1919 to 1939, every piece of radio equipment that was used by the Royal Navy was developed and designed in His Majesty's Signal School. The Signal School also produced manufacturing drawings of the equipment, which was then procured from industry by Signal School engineers. The equipment was then brought into the Signal School for testing and then sent out to the dockyards where ship builders installed the equipment under supervision of Signal School engineers. The other services didn't have anything like that. The only comparable set-up in this country was in the Marconi Co., Ltd. and in Standard Telephone and Cables, Ltd., part of ITT.

So the organization was all there, you see, with experienced scientists and engineers. Now the Navy has always tended to go its own way, so although Watson Watt tried very hard to get hold of the work done for the Navy, the Admiralty would not let him do this. So right from the very start in 1935, we started developing the radar for the Navy. One of our engineers went to Bawdsey— Otfordness it probably was then —and when he came back we set up a small party to work on it. We made a bit of a hash of it for the first couple of years, then we had a great reorganization in 1937, and from there we didn't look back.

We were much quicker at getting stuff developed, built into the ships at sea because we could call on industry. We already knew all the people in industry, we were already in cahoots with them. Our engineers and I knew a lot of leading people in industry before the war. That's why we had the first 10 centimeter set. The early work was done at Swanage. As soon as the magnetrons were available we got them. Our people got on it and got it built, and within well under a year, they were going out to sea in the battle of the Atlantic.

That's why we have written it down. So far it is the only published account that deals with the history of the development, and the operational use in the war. There are other splendid works, but they do not focus on the research and development. We have in fact got this archive, which will go into the archive center at Churchill College, Cambridge. [2]

Aspray:

Looking at it from a technical point of view, were there differences between this equipment and the equipment that was built by parts of other British organizations working on radar?

Coales:

Yes. The naval requirement is in fact very different either from the Army or the Air Force. The equipment has to be very much more robust, for a start. You do get near misses, and things get very heavily shaken about at sea, but they have to go on working. You aren't back in port in a couple of days in wartime, it can be months, so the equipment has to be maintainable. Also, for example, naval gunnery requirements are quite different from either land or air gunneries. A warning set had to be suitable for fitting at the masthead, and all that sort of thing. So it was a true bill that the requirements were different, and the more we have gone over this, the more it has become evident that this was a true bill.

Aspray:

As the war progressed, was there closer interaction among the Navy, the Army and the Air Force in radar development?

Coales:

In 1937, when war broke out, I only had about ten years in, but I was in fact one of the senior people. Cecil Horton — who was really the great prime mover of the radar project — had been my boss on the radio direction finding. When I joined him at the end of 1930, there was only Horton and Cecil Crampton, myself, and a retired signal bosun. Alfred Ross joined us in 1935. But this ridiculously little group led the world in high-frequency ship direction-finding, there's no doubt about it at all. When we had this great reorganization in 1937, Horton was put in charge of all the research and development, and Alfred Ross, Simmons, Hogben and I all came over about that time, or a little later. We were the only people who had been in the old experimental department. So, although we were the younger members of that department, we were now the senior members on the radar side.

I was assigned to what was then called centimeter waves radar, which meant everything below a meter, since at that time you couldn't do what became the centimeter wave radar. I inherited a couple of chaps who were working on it with a magnetron on 25 centimeters and not getting anywhere, so after a few months I did some calculations, looked at the thing very carefully, and decided that we ought to go to 50 centimeter, half-meter wavelengths. Horton agreed, and eventually the Director of Scientific Research, DSR, agreed. So we went at that hammer and tongs, getting help whenever we could because everything had to be new.

The reason I had chosen 50 centimeters was because I had calculated that we could go to triodes. You remember the Samuel doorknob valves, the E239 or whatever it was. I reckoned we could use them — two of them — and then thanks to a bit of luck, we got what was called the "micropup" from GEC, and then we got hundreds of watts. As soon as war broke out they wanted the set, and we were just able to demonstrate it within a few months; it became a close-range gunnery set. It was so successful that it was used for all the guns, the big guns right down to the Bofors — hundreds of them. They were the gunnery sets that fought the war for the Navy. The 10 centimeter gunnery sets only just got in by the end of the war.

But I kept in touch — close touch, personally. I used to go off to Swanage and Christchurch to keep in touch with what the Army and RAF people were doing. I did this throughout the war, more than any of my colleagues. I suppose it was my nature to go. I had people I could trust, and I used to travel. In fact — I only discovered this a couple of years back. It was I who went down — saw the 10 centimeter. I knew what was going on with the 10 centimeter work because I was in close touch with Megaw the whole time, in Wembley. In about September 1940 they got far enough, and according to Derek Howes who found a memo from me to Horton, it was I who had told him that they had gotten somewhere down in Swanage. I wasn't the only one who went, but in the early years I went much more than anybody else. We kept in touch. They tended not to come and see us, we went to see them, but I don't really hold that against them. But just to have a little joke about it, the only person I do rather hold it against for not telling us things is old A. V. Jones up at Aberdeen now, who was at Brackley. They never told us anything. I only had two, I think two, at most three, secret service reports, and they were only tiny things. They never told me anything I didn't know. We never got anything at all. And I think that was pretty bad. But fortunately we knew what was going on pretty well for one reason or another.

Aspray:

Did you all have access to the same suppliers for materials, tubes and such?

Coales:

Yes. But we in the Navy, the Admiralty, were in a strong position because we knew all the suppliers before the war. We had procured naval equipment from them. They used to come see us. We had a man — old Josephs of Aeronautical and General Instruments — who used to come scouting for business, you see. We also knew Spordberg at BTH. We were in a very favorable position thanks to this history of what went on before the war. When we knew we had to go out and get these sets in a hurry — In October of 1939 the Admiralty said they wanted a close range gunnery set. I had already been in touch with McGaw at Wembley, concerning the magnetron and the communication development, which I had inherited in 1937. By the end of 1939, we had done a great deal together and in September 1938 I had happened to see the valves there, which had to be modified, and which started the CVD organization in fact. We also had work going on at the GEC telephone works at Coventry. We knew we had to use a Thyratron, but we found that it required modifications, so we got BTH, who were the experts on Thyratrons working on developing a suitable Thyratron. Naturally they would also make the modulators, which also had to be specially developed.

The display presented a challenge because it was for a close-range set, and we hadn't any automatic strobes or anything like that in those days. It was all done by measuring on a cathode ray tube face, so you needed a linear scale. I knew at close range I'd have to go to a 12-inch cathode ray tube. There was only one place in the country; that was Cossors. Fortunately, I knew L. H. Bedford, the only firm which had a 12-inch CRT. So we had to go to Cossors to develop that. He was very uncertain as to whether such a display could be developed. But they did it, and they produced the display. We were in trouble over the receivers. In the end, we got Marconi's to work on the receivers. We also needed new aerials, and new cable. Fortunately Pirellis' had come up with a polythene insulated cable, and we got Willis Jackson doing the measurements on it up at Manchester. We also got them to do the dipoles. Every ruddy thing was new! We had to make sure we could maintain a steady power supply, so we had to have automatic transformers to maintain the voltage. We found a small firm called Advanced Components, to do that work. We knew and we found people. If we wanted something, I would ask my procurement people for it, and they would go out and find it somewhere. We found people who made permawood, which as you know was impregnated wood. That's how it was done, orders were put out to various suppliers for all the different components.

Just to give you an idea of the rate at which we operated. The Admiralty first asked for the set in October 1939. They wanted it for barrage fire at the dive bombers, using the main armaments and close-range weapons. They wanted something that would give them a range from 5,000 yards down. In February we were able to put on a demonstration at the anti-aircraft range at Portsmouth. Stephen Roskill and Kay Eddon came and said, "This is just what we want, go ahead." We got the letter of approval at the beginning of April, and orders were immediately put out to all these suppliers for 200 sets. By July this was increased to 900 sets. By December, we had two of the sets completed and installed in King George IV and Southdown, a sloop, and I was doing trials at sea in December. That was the sort of rate we had to move work at.

Aspray:

Who did the final building of the whole set? Was that done inside your operation, or was it —

Coales:

That was done in the ship under the direction of our engineers.

Aspray:

I see.

Coales:

In the early days, of course, one of my lads would go and test the set before it was put into operation. In the Prince of Wales, the following May, we were supposed to have eleven sets. But we only had nine. So that meant we needed special machines to get them spaced out. I took a team of half a dozen of my people out there to get them going. That's how we did it. It was a proper wartime operation, which we were good at. We'd had experience, plus the Navy is good at that. The Royal Navy has always been good at this, you see. Always been. People take responsibility. You don't get messed about from above. You're expected to get on, even if you're a "snotty."[3]

Aspray:

I see!

Coales:

That's engendered in the blood. It makes life much easier. Don't misunderstand me. The chaps at Malvern, they would do these things, also but they learned to do it themselves. We were in the fortunate position of being within an organization where this had been going on for hundreds of years, and so it was easy for us. They had to do it their own way. At Malvern they invented what they called Sunday soviets, where Joubert, the Air Chief Marshall, and the top RAF people would come and discuss with them. We didn't need Sunday soviets.

Aspray:

I see.

Coales:

We didn't need to do that because we had application officers, we had naval officers, specially picked. Mind you, nobody said they were, but they had been specially picked to work with us, and we had always had this cooperation. I used to have an application officer who went to sea with me on the direction-finding, back in the early 1930s. So we were in fortunate position. The more I look back on it I realize how unbelievably fortunate we were.

Aspray:

As the war went on, was there contact with the US Navy?

Coales:

Oh yes, very, very good contact indeed. When the Tizard mission left, Taffy Bowen stayed in England with the magnetron. Of course, the closest liaison was on IFF. This had to be very close, and it was very close indeed, quite early on, in fact. There was an Admiralty Mission in Washington, as well as Ottawa too. That was the basis of how it was supposed to be. In 1943 a party came, with a Captain Tucker, who was in charge of radar in Buword, came with Ivan Getting, who you will know by name, Doc Patterson, and somebody else to look at the gunnery radar also came.

Then Calpine, my deputy, who was a very senior engineer on the fire control side - design and development of fire control equipment — and I spent a fortnight at the Radiation Lab, and about a week or so at Bell Labs. We wanted to spend more time at Bell Labs and also at the lab at MIT, but a stupid Captain in Washington was causing us difficulties. Eventually, Doc Patterson smoothed the way, and we got it all. By and large the cooperation between the US Navy and the Royal Navy was absolutely excellent.

Archival Collection at Churchill College

Aspray:

Can you tell me something about the nature of the records that are going into this archival collection at Churchill College, Cambridge?

Coales:

Well, yes. They consist of original notebooks; they contain a certain number of documents, which may also be available in the Public Records Office. We have a copy of the turnover notes for one of the application officers. The originals should exist somewhere else, but we don't know with certainty if they do. We also have a book written by one of my cohorts and colleagues in the navy — he's still there — Radar For the Non-Technical Officer, written in about 1945. It's his copy. There should be lots of other copies about, but we don't know. We have a couple of CBs, so called, which are important from Derek Howes' point of view, and which must also exist in the Public Records Office. We have copies of scientific reports that were produced in the war, one or two of which may be the only extant copies. Scientific reports should be down in Portsmouth, but they aren't all there. We know they aren't all in the PRO. The list of research memos there is a very sparse. We also have copies of the reports that are extant at Portsmouth, which were necessary to write our account. We didn't need them all, of course, but we needed some of them, and Sid Wright, succeeded in getting them copied, in order to help my colleagues write their contributions to the monographs. In addition, Derek Howes obtained copies of cabinet papers and things in the PRO which are of importance. Because Derek Howes has been meticulous about checking things and compiled what is needed to write an account, which is accurate to ninety-nine percent, or something like. I daresay Janet Dudley has found more, but lots of papers are still there. That's what it will consist of. There are also about 700 recollections written in the last few years by people who were concerned with radar at the time.

Aspray:

Are any of these recollections published elsewhere?

Coales:

No. Perhaps I'd better explain, it's like this. We held this radio location convention back in 1945, the proceedings of which were published by the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1946. Now that covered most of the research work, but of course it didn't cover anything that was classified. Old Butement, who was organizing this in the institution, didn't bother to tell us, you see, so I found out about it a bit late. I had a bit of a row with the institution trying to get our work properly covered. I was successful, and the Admiralty Signal Establishment research work is reasonably well covered in this publication. His Majesty's Signal School became the Admiralty Signal Establishment in 1941.

The development work was not published anywhere because it was scattered about in various research reports and other memos. Bits of information were published in several books, but had not been written up until my colleagues and I wrote these monographs. These were originally written to help Derek Howes write Radar at Sea, this story for the laymen. Though little bits have come out in other places, by and large this work has never been properly examined or written up.

The editor of the Journal of Naval Science, which is a restricted publication, has published most of these recollections. In some cases, they have been enlarged and there are some others that haven't been published, to go into these two volumes that are now about to be published.

Aspray:

Now, do these archives allow one to see the operations side as well?

Coales:

Yes. The operational side has been very fully researched by Derek Howes, and thanks to his efforts we hold copies of most of the essential documents. Howes is a retired naval officer himself, a navigation officer. In fact, he was in an old destroyer I knew well, at the end of the war, operating radar. After he retired from the Navy he became the keeper of instruments and astronomy at the National Maritime Museum, in Greenwich, and he's written a number of books. He's written a book about Greenwich time, and he wrote the second volume of the history of the Royal Observatory, you see, on the instruments and such, and so he went and then he found most of what was necessary: this is the thing that he had so much difficulty with. When Roskill wrote The War at Sea, which is the official history, he wasn't able to say much about radar because the material was still classified. He would have done very well because he knew a lot about it. I knew Roskill, he was a very good friend of mine. Unfortunately he died just before we started on this project. Howes had to track down this material, so he got in touch with a number of naval officers. We have quite a lot of the recollections of these officers. Eventually he found the documents in the Public Records Office, somewhere among the cabinet papers, not in the Admiralty files. So he has in fact located most of the essential documents and copied them.

Aspray:

Are there things that you know existed at one time that you haven't been able to find?

Coales:

The answer to that is very vague. There are certainly quite a number of documents that we would like to have found which we have been quite incapable of finding. On the other hand, in the end, we have much more than I ever expected. We have found documents that cover what was needed. So while there are very few gaps, sadly there are a number of documents that haven't turned up.

Aspray:

What is the size of the collection?

Coales:

It will be getting on to twenty cubic feet. I don't know how much, there's a lot of duplicate stuff to go, but it will be quite big.

Aspray:

Does the Public Records Office mind this material being deposited?

Coales:

No. No, not at all. The Public Records Office does not lay claim to people's personal papers, apparently. Mind you, we haven't raised the question. However, we set up this Naval radar trust, because we needed money to deal with all this. In order to qualify as a charity, the Charity Commissioner insisted that the archives be placed where they would be publicly available, and there was some question whether Churchill was in fact publicly available but it is. That's the only situation, really, where the Public Records Office doesn't say, "oh, they must go there."

Aspray:

Were there other things you wanted to say about this topic?

Coales:

Well, what I think you ought to know is that we were very dissatisfied with the way the whole question of what we call active devices — magnetrons, cathode ray tubes, all these things — had been covered in the literature. Therefore, I convinced Brian Callick to write Metres to Microwaves.

Aspray:

Oh yes. Yes, I know it by its title.

Coales:

That is a very good account of the developments, from the point of view of all the services, but particularly from ours. Callick had a very wide experience in the field — he was at EMI, GEC, and TRE. He's done it very well. And there are quite a number of examples of these early [unintelligible] who arrived at GEC — they do exist.

Background and Education

Aspray:

Can you tell me where you were born and a little bit about your early education?

Coales:

Well, I was born in 1907, in Birmingham, where my father was a lecturer in Electrical Engineering. Curiously enough, on my mother's side, my forebears do come from Birmingham. On my father's side they come from Northampton. My father was Principal of the Technical College of Wolverhampton before the war, which is now a university. During the war, he thought he should do war activity. He got seconded. He went and sat in a wind tunnel in York, because he thought aeronautics was the going thing, and he became the expert on aircraft performance and deck landing in the Air Ministry. I was sent off in the end to boarding school, and then I got to Cambridge where I read physics. That was in the days of Rutherford and Blackett, and Jeff Ratcliffe, who had a fine view of radio. When I graduated, jobs were not that easy to find, they were getting a bit more difficult in 1929.

Aspray:

How well had you done as a student?

Coales:

I'd done pretty well. I didn't read math. I thought I wanted to be a mathematician, but I wasn't good enough for mathematics in Cambridge. Fortunately I was equally good at science in school, and so I took the higher school's certificate in both math group and science group. Normally you only took one group. I did both. I made the mistake of making math my chief thing, and so in order to get a distinction, I had to do what were called distinction papers, and I didn't do very well in those or math. I did very well in one of them and very badly in another, so I didn't get my distinction in math. I got the physics distinction, I seem to remember, but I didn't get a state scholarship, so I took an open scholarship at Sydney Sussex College, Cambridge.

I therefore sat for a scholarship in science rather than in maths, or I wouldn't have gotten a scholarship at all. I started off in maths, but in those days Sydney used to have only about three undergraduate degrees in mathematics, of which they expected at least two to be wranglers, and I wasn't going to be a wrangler, which they spotted that right away. I was allowed to do maths for one year, then I was shunted off into physics. But doing it that way I was able to do Part 2 Physics. The point is that Sciences Part 2 were postgraduate courses in those days, and if you did Maths Part 1, you could then do just Physics Part 2, and that's what I did. I was expected to get a first, but I made a hash of the practical — proving Ruben and Nichol's experiment. You had to do an unseen experiment if you expected to get a first and I was told that I only just missed my first, and that I got a good second. But Blackett had found me out, to be truthful, and it was very lucky for me that he did, because if he hadn't I should probably have stayed on and done research, but Blackett had found me out, and I'm not a very good experimenter. And so I wasn't able to stay on and do research; I had to go out and get a job.

Admiralty and Signal School

Aspray:

And so this was 1929?

Coales:

1929, yes. A job in electronics was advertised in the Admiralty Scientific Service — Scientific Research and Development Department. Which was going to be electronics. I wasn't too happy about that. I didn't really want to go into the Scientific Civil Service much because my father had been in it. However I went. Brundrett, who had made the short-list, was a Sydney man, and he thought that I was the sort of chap that he'd like at the Signal School, so I was called for an interview by Charles Wright, who was then director in the Admiralty. And I got it! I was due to be sent off down to Portsmouth. And my face fitted. I was put on wave meters and underwater signaling for a year, and then moved over to this direction finding business with Horton, with whom I got on with extremely well. I was left to myself. I was really thrown in at the deep end. I was on antenna work, propagation in the ionosphere and carried out field experiments, which suited me. I didn't have to do much about electronic circuits, fortunately. And as I said, my face fitted.

Then Hitler came along, and the Navy was rearming, and we got busy. In 1934-1935 Brundrett wanted to move me to the Admiralty because I had been in Signal School a long time. Then, as they said, we had this reputation, and in 1937 there was this reorganization because the chaps who had been put on radar had made a bit of a mess of it really, and so there I was, right in the beginning of radar.

Radar Detection Work

Aspray:

Can you give me a little bit of background on the radar detection work? Who else was doing it? What was the purpose of it being done then? What did you accomplish?

Coales:

What happened in radar was roughly this. The U.S. Naval research labs had started work back in 1932. In Japan, Germany, and Holland, they had also gotten started thinking about things in 1932. We didn't. The chap in the Air Ministry who had raised the question was an RAF officer, a friend of my father, who had asked me, and I had done simple calculations on the back of an envelope, and said it wasn't possible at all, the signal strengths were much too low. For I was only to be thinking of broadcasting from an aircraft to detect ships.

Alder, one of my colleagues, had produced a patent for Radar in 1928, because he had been doing some work on measuring the distance of a ship's position from land, for shore bombardment. The Navy always wanted to know how to do bombardment because to get the range for bombardment is extremely difficult. Alder found that he got reflections from the cliffs, or something, and he put in for this patent. But the Admiralty weren't really interested, so it didn't go anywhere. I'm sure the reason they weren't interested was, because they were thinking only in terms of shore bombardment.

Watson Watt was doing some work for us, in fact, in connection with direction finding on short wavelengths on 11 meters. He was doing work for us and the people at NBL worked on short wave propagation for this ship direction finding stuff. Watson-Watt was also doing work on ionospheric reflection Brighton power on 11 meters. We had known that when an aircraft flew over a place where people were doing field trials on these short waves, you got fluctuations of the needle, so we knew there were air reflections from aircraft. There was a prize out, I believe there was a prize, my father told me there was a prize out — they were looking for a method to detect aircraft. And Watson Watt realized that here was a possibility for an aircraft detection method. Watt had been asked if they could get aircraft down with a death ray, and he'd done the calculations and said, "No, you couldn't, but I think I could detect them." So they asked, "How soon can you give us a demonstration?" And he replied, "Three months."

So they took a trailer up to Daventry, and first he worked using the transmitter at Daventry. Then they got some reflections back from planes, and he was told to set up experiments at Oxfordness. I have always believed that was why our main-chain stations were on 11 meters. I know they did tests to determine the best wavelengths. They thought that about 11 meters was right, an aircraft span being about half a wavelength, you see. The Germans wouldn't believe it — but they had concentrated on gunnery, and had done all their work on around 50-80 centimeters, you see. So that's how Watson Watt got the Air Ministry to put up the 100,000 Pounds to get the Bawdsey experimental station going in 1936. And that's how it happened.

Now at Bawdsey, the Army came in fairly quickly, with a number of people — Pollard, Chivers, Friend, Berlement, and others — who had been working on communications for the Army at Woolwich for many years. I knew them slightly; they worked on direction finding too. They moved to Bawdsey with the people Watson Watt had brought in. Watson Watt had just a very few people mostly from the universities. He took a few people from his party at NPL, and A. P. Rowe, who was a permanent civil servant from the Ministry of Air was sent as the administrator. And so they got going.

The Admiralty had a meeting and decided they wanted the Signal School involved. They sent a rather senior physicist A. B. Wood, from the Admiralty Research Laboratory. He and a chap named Yeo, one of my colleagues in Signal School, went to Bawdsey for a few weeks. They came back and reported, and then the Admiralty reluctantly agreed that another scientific officer or two should be appointed, with a couple of assistants. It was all top secret.

They set up a party around Yeo, who looked at it and started building a radar on 4 meter wavelength. But they gave them a much too wide ranging program. They knew that they had to mount antennas at the masthead. They had both transmitting and receiving at this stage; there weren't any common TR facilities. This meant that the area couldn't be too big, but in the end, they got it to work on 7 meters. But Yeo had started working on 4 meters. This was a ridiculous mistake he made, because all our transmitter people knew that the valves for 4 meters had seals that were too long. You couldn't avoid parasitic oscillations. This was well known. But 7 meters was in use for communications.

They also started on this 25 centimeter work. They had gunnery in mind, but they were primarily thinking in terms of ship detection, which they thought would be much easier on the centimeter wave, which of course it is. However, they knew that there was a gunnery requirement too, I think, at that stage. They were not fools, these naval officers. There were some very intelligent naval officers who did think ahead. And so that's how that went.

Taffy Bowen, who was at Bawdsey, was put on the aircraft detection side and knew he wanted centimeter waves. In fact, C. S. Wright asked him very early on, what should be done, and he said he wanted 10 centimeter radar. This was back in 1937 when I made the decision to go to 50 centimeters. Ten centimeters wasn't around then, that's why I did it. Taffy Bowen knew all about 50 centimeters, and that there wasn't any sense in going to it. I think he would have tried at 10 centimeters but if we'd done that we wouldn't have had the sets in 1940. So this was the point, my decision turned out to be the right one, but it was more good luck, than good management.

So at Bawdsey they developed the meter and a quarter wavelength for ASD and AI. But they knew they wanted the 10 centimeters — everybody did. C. S. Wright got Oliphant working at Birmingham. Sutton in Signal School got moving on the velocity tubes in our valve department for the 10 centimeter work. And because of that, in the end it came together in 1940 to get the 10 centimeter stuff under way. That's how it happened.

The "Micropup"

Aspray:

Was the choice of 50 centimeters by your group the right decision because it could be pulled together in time to be put into use?

Coales:

My reason for going to 50 centimeters was that I knew everything that McGaw was doing on magnetrons. I knew all this very well. He was reckoned to lead the world in magnetrons. He was in close touch with Gouton in France. But McGaw's magnetron work was not doing well. I was so disappointed. They were only getting a fraction of a watt out of this ruddy 25 centimeter thing. We were getting more on the 50 centimeter — McGaw's omni-communications thing. We now know that the Germans were doing much better, we now know, for some reason or other, with their magnetrons. But I reckoned we would never get anywhere with magnetrons. Therefore, I thought the only thing to do was the pulse triodes. So I did sums, as I said, and this worked out.

It was a bit of luck. I used to go up to Wembley every few days, talking to McGaw, trying to solve the problem for our receivers. We didn't know what the hell to do. We tried every ruddy thing — Squeggers, autodyne, heterodyne. I once suggested that we try a crystal mixer, but McGaw said, "Oh, the conversion factor is not nearly enough!" We were desperate. One day in 1938 when I was at Wembley, I ran into Rossinget in the corridor. He was a chemistry type, a valve designer. With great pride he showed me this little valve, which was later called the micropup. The valve had a copper-glass seal for the finned anode, and a copper-glass seal for the grid coming out at the side. I took one look at it and thought, "Now if we could bring our grid lead out concentric with the anode, that valve was exactly what we wanted." Because we already had a 3/4 wavelength concentric line with a valve at each end.

So I went back and talked to my deputy, Calpine, about this. He was dealing with the transmitters and he agreed that this was what we wanted. McGaw and his party were coming down in about a week to see us about this communications set. I told Horton about the valve and suggested that we ask them to change it, making the grid concentric with the anode. But I told him it would be no good unless we could tell them what it was for. He replied, "What the hell do you want to do a daft thing like that for?" You see, in those days there was a list of only about 200 people who could know about radar. You were not allowed to mention it to anybody who was not on that list. But Horton did ask Charles Wright of DSR, who gave us the go-ahead on his own recognizance. So we did it, and that's how the micropup valves came about.

Charles Wright then said, "Well, look, I've spilled the beans to GEC. I can't very well leave them in this very advantageous position. I must bring in the other valve makers." So he brought in Marconi and Cossors, and that's how the CVD organization was started. That's why it was always handled by the Admiralty, not by the Air Ministry as you might have expected. That's how it happened. It was good luck! That put us way ahead of the Germans. Otherwise we would have been behind the Germans, without question.

Organization of Gunnery Radar Work

Aspray:

Why don't you continue the story of your career?

Coales:

As a result of this, I was thereafter responsible for the development of gunnery radar for the Navy. We had an integrated organization, but soon after we moved up to Witley from Portsmouth, we were re-organized into what were called equipment divisions and component divisions. Theoretically we were all equals, but in actual fact, the component divisions had to do what the equipment division told them. So the heads of the equipment divisions were always the senior people.

Aspray:

How was the agenda for the work of your group decided? Who set the objectives?

Coales:

Well, this was a very complicated business. Before the war the signal, the gunnery, and torpedo departments were in the Admiralty. There was also the Department of Technical Staff Duties. Priorities in the commissioning of any new work were decided by the appropriate department. For us, priorities were decided by the Signal Department. All departments came under the Third Sea Lord, or the Controller, as he was called in the Admiralty. The Controller was a member of the board, which ultimately approved all decisions. So our priorities were basically decided by the director of the Signal Department with the approval of the board.

From 1935, well into 1938, RDF, as it was then called, was a low priority. It was only after Bruce Fraser was controller, that Admiral Summerville and Charles Wright gradually persuaded the Admiralty that RDF should take priority, but it took a long time. The Signal Department still existed. The Director of Naval Ordinance still existed as the procurement department for all gunnery equipment which was sent down to Bath. There was a Gunnery Division set up in London, and the Signal Department became the Signal Division. Staff requirements were decided by the signal division or the Gunnery Division. That is for the gunnery sets, they were decided by the Gunnery Division in consultation with me, basically. I used to go and spend an afternoon and argue the staff requirements with the Naval Staff at the Gunnery Division.

Aspray:

I see.

Coales:

Of course, priorities in signal school or in ASE had to be agreed upon in the Admiralty. Procurement had to be dealt with by the Signal Department or the Director of Naval Ordinance. But in the early days of the war, there was by and large no red tape. We just went and got on with it; there wasn't anything to stop us. As John Rawlinson and I used to joke, most of the equipment out in the fleet was on our slop chits. We signed for the stuff. It was all terribly easy.

This was because of the whole naval situation. You see, when I was in the service the ghost of Nelson still walked in the Navy. The captain in a ship was master in his own ship. When he was captain of the flagship, if he thought it was dangerous to go to sea even the admiral couldn't make him go. The captain was in charge. And this attitude went right through the Navy. "What the captain says goes." If the captain's on your side, no one can say you "Nay." And the curious thing—very, very curious — shows how important this was to the Navy. In those days, before the war, appointments were all made personally by the Second Sea Lord. The captain of His Majesty's Signal School was always a senior captain to the Director of the Signal Department. He was higher on the captain's list. So the captain of the gunnery school was also senior to the Director of Naval Ordinance. This meant that if DSD sent down a silly request to Signal School, asking us to do something which we really seemed daft, we would tell the experimental commander. He would tell the signal school captain that the request was daft. The captain would say, "We shall get to DSD on the blower," and that's the last you would hear of it. That literally happened. This was the attitude in the Navy. I was expected to get on and do things myself.

Aspray:

When you went out to see the people in the gunnery department over specifications and such, what kinds of issues would come up? What would be the nature of the discussion?

Coales:

Oh, this is an interesting point. There was a very able gunnery officer, who was a commander in the gunnery division. He was responsible for the radar aspects. They would prepare staff requirements for what they wanted, in terms of ranges, angular accuracy, range accuracy, and so on. This would then come down to me, to review since I might say, "Well, that's impossible. We haven't got a hope of getting that range, or we haven't got a hope of getting that accuracy." I would have to go through it, obviously, and then I would get in touch with my opposite number in the Gunnery Division, and we'd discuss it. In the early days, the head of the Gunnery Division was Captain Langley. He was one of the most able naval officers there has ever been. He really knew a lot about gunnery. He was a forward looking person. I used to say that I had gotten back from an afternoon with Langley feeling as if I had been playing a Grand Master at chess. He used to say, "That's a damn silly thing, why do you want that?" Then I would have to justify it. But that's quite right, that is the way to do it. I didn't publicize this, but in the early days, I had to think of what we would want in four or five years' time, so I would think about what developments I wanted to ask approval for. I wouldn't write down the staff requirements, but I would make sure that they gave me a bit of leeway to move on a bit. But that's how it was done.

I used to have to go to meetings. You can't just imagine the problems that arose. My chaps and I had to go to Vickers or wherever, because things had to match up with the fire control directors and the gun mounting or whatever it was. This was done by meetings with both naval and civilian staff of the other departments. I did a hell of a lot of traveling; I had to. It's one of the reasons why it fell to my lot to organize writing the books, because I met many more naval officers than anybody else. It was the very nature of the job.

Aspray:

You mentioned the lack of red tape in the early days of the war. As the war progressed, did the problem of red tape get worse?

Coales:

Yes, it did get worse. The lack of red tape was one of the reasons why we were able to get equipment out into operation at sea very quickly in the early days. But after 1942, it became a much more lengthy business. There were two reasons for this. One was that we enlarged very, very much. We moved from Portsmouth up to Whitley, and instead of a couple of hundred people all together, there were nearly two thousand by the end of the war. The point is that we didn't know everybody, which doesn't help. But there was very much more red tape.

It wouldn't, I think, be fair to say that the urgency had gone out of the situation in the Admiralty, or in the Navy. But I think the urgency had gone out of our situation, generally because everything had become much more complicated. We got tired. We knew we couldn't work at the feverish pace that we had worked at in 1941. I had been ill and gotten over it and so had other people. We had a lot of new young people in. They were keen enough, but they weren't experienced. Well, after all, my friends were dying on the Russian convoys. So in the early days there was a terrific sense of urgency, they were our friends. But in the later days, for the majority of people, there wasn't the same sense of urgency. When you get a big organization, it doesn't work in the same way.

Boreham Wood Laboratory

Aspray:

I wish we had the time to talk more about the war, but maybe we should move on to later parts of your career.

Coales:

All right. Well, a funny thing happened. We found that if you were trying to design a radar set for a fire control system, the fire control system and the radar needed to be developed together. Fitting radars to existing fire control systems was not very satisfactory. Kerrison, who was the director of the Admiralty gunnery establishment, which developed the fire control, was determined to go down to Portland after the war. On the other hand, the die was cast, and the Admiralty Signal Establishment was going to go to Portsdown Hill, Portsmouth. Rear-Admiral Brooking, head of the ASE, said, "This will not do. If the Admiralty will not put its affairs in order and have the radar and gunnery in the same place, we shall have to get industry to do it for us. The obvious place to start trying is Vickers." Brooking persuaded Charles Daniel, who was the Controller and Brundrett, the chief of the Royal Naval Scientific Service that this would be a good idea. Brundrett was the chap who had short-listed me years earlier for my first job. He told me later that he had wanted to put me in charge of infrared work after the war. But Brooking persuaded him that it would be a good idea to try and persuade Vickers to do this radar and fire control, and it would be a good idea for Vickers to take me on to look after it. Brundrett wrote to me about all this, and Brooking approached me to see if I would agree. We then started on a round of firms to find somebody who would do it, because the director of naval ordinance had decided he couldn't go against his director of AGE, Kerrison, although nobody else wanted to go to Portland.

We first tried Vickers, because the Chairman had already agreed in principle. But then they said, they had arranged for AEI, to do all their electronics for them. AEI decided to set up research labs at Aldermaston. AEI wouldn't take the electronics to Vickers, and Vickers wouldn't take it on, so that wouldn't work. We also talked to Metropolitan Vickers and other firms. In the end, Elliott Brothers said they would like to set up research laboratories to do the work. Elliott Brothers were particularly effective fire control instrument makers, and had done the surface fire control for many years. Geoffrey Lee, who had recently become managing director of Elliott Brothers, asked me to be research director, to build these laboratories up, and I agreed. The Admiralty had a fuse factory in Boreham Wood, which they were prepared to lease to Elliotts. In the summer of 1946 I started building up this team, which I did very successfully as it turned out.

Aspray:

Had Elliott Bros. had an R & D operation before?

Coales:

Yes, but only on a very, very small scale. They were instrument makers, for which you need two or three good people. They hadn't done electronics. I had to build that up. But I had quite a lot of people who wanted to join me, so I was able to engage quite a lot of people. The only difficulty was that Geoffrey Lee made a big mistake. The war had come to an end and the Admiralty invoked its break clauses in its contracts with Elliotts. So Elliotts was very deprived of work. They had massive stocks that Geoffrey Lee greatly over-valued.

Stammers was the Managing Director of the British Tabulating Machine Company (BTM) and so was able to give Elliotts a lot of work making their electromechanical IBM-designed office machinery. Stammers and Geoffrey Leigh thought it would be a very good idea if my outfit at Elliotts, Boreham Wood, would develop the electronics for future computers. This was quite extraordinary stuff, as you will see. BTM had no experience in electronics at all. The whole business was setting up the necessary laboratory to develop a complete digital fire control system with real-time computers. We later had the master patents on the digital disk. We invented the digital disk, in order to measure the angles. And we developed the computers, as I'll explain in a moment. But just to go back to BTM, Holland Martin was their research director. Holland Martin was from a banking family and was frightened to death at the idea. We were, too — and so it never came about, due to him I think, which is a great pity.

Computer Development

Coales:

Anyhow, I'll just go on to the computer development for a moment. Because of this naval background, we not only had this digital fire control system development, but they also gave us what was known as a comprehensive display system. Lawes, the chap who had started this in ASE had joined me. I always thought it would become digital, but they didn't let us get on to the digital; they did that down at ASE. That meant that we were developing an enormous amount of electronic equipment to go into ships and I knew there was no possibility of the Navy maintaining this at sea. Therefore, I immediately looked for methods of doing the computery in small bits that could be thrown away. So we immediately started on printed circuits. We looked at pulse transformer methods and so on, because this was before the transistor had broken. I set up a party to look at printed circuits, which in the end we called packaged units. The philosophy was that no item should cost more than five pounds, so it could be thrown away, rather than repaired. So this set us on packaged units. We ran into all kinds of different problems. For example, we ran into the trouble that silver forms dendrites on glass. Well, we got over these troubles, and we had our packaged units. We had a chap named Charles Owen, who was good at circuit design and he worked out the tolerances properly.

Bill Elliott, no relation of the founders of the firm, took the first of these package units to the Association of Computer Manufacturers meeting in America in 1948, and as you know, IBM didn't in fact develop computers until they could do this with packaged units. When I went to Moscow in 1958, their BESM-2 had packaged units which might have been straight from our 401. Anyhow, so we developed that system. The 401 was taken to the Physical Society exhibition in 1953, by which time I had left Elliotts.

Resignation & Elliott Bros. Reorganization

Coales:

I'll tell you briefly why I went. The people who owned Elliotts — the Higginsons, who were from one of the big merchant banks in England at the time — had bought Siemens out originally, and put Geoffrey Leigh in. Geoffrey Leigh got into a financial mess. We all thought Elliotts was going to go bankrupt. They brought in Leon Bagrit and Lotti Ross. Bagrit was an Armenian and Lotti Ross was a Hungarian, who had built up a weighing machine company — B & P Swift — before the war. They had done some wartime work. First Bagrit was joint managing director, and then Geoffrey Leigh left altogether. We thought Elliotts was going bankrupt. What I didn't know was that Leon Bagrit could get Higginson to lend half a million on his note of hand. That saved us going bankrupt. We were on pro forma invoices. I had hell up and down over this with Bagrit, because we couldn't get equipment and things that the Admiralty wanted. I had to have a stand-up row over this.

In the end — this is what hasn't been written, what people have been asking questions about now — we had to have a meeting with the Admiralty, and I made my case. I made arrangements that if Elliotts did go bankrupt, I would keep the laboratories as a separate entity and could carry on for a few weeks while I got other finance. People don't generally know this, but I did do that. Because I would almost certainly have been able to do this with Admiralty help. The Admiralty was not prepared to clear Bagrit and Ross, as foreigners because our work was top-secret. I was confirmed in my position of independence, so to speak, answering only to the main board of Elliotts. One of the other directors was made responsible, and Bagrit and Ross didn't have any say in the work that was going on. It was a pretty unsatisfactory situation. We were doing the only real-time digital computer work in Europe. Bell Labs was doing similar work in the States. We paid a visit to them and they visited us a number of times. But then the Admiralty decided it couldn't afford to go on with this. In addition to our work, they were copying the Radiation Lab gunnery director — the medium range one, developed by Ivan Getting. I can't remember its number — 167 or something I think. They had also given another development contract to Vickers. So in the end they invoked the break clause, which put the cat among the pigeons. Bill Cook, who was the Director of Physical Research in the Admiralty at that time, was determined that our labs should not be lost, and found other work to replace this. So we stayed on some computing work, the comprehensive display system, and a navigational computer for the navy. We got Trident, which was an enormous analog flight-simulator for guided weapons. We also had other things, so we kept going. Then the Korean War started, and the thing got bigger. So it was all a great success, and everyone will tell you that to this day.

This situation couldn't go on forever. Bagrit's first move was to put in a man — an old friend of mine, Bill Wykeham — as my deputy without asking me first, which didn't please me much. This didn't cause any real trouble, because I knew the man very well, and we were great friends. Then Bagrit said that he wanted me to be his scientific advisor, and one of the triumvirate who ran the Elliott empire: Bagrit; Lotti Ross, the technical director; and me, the research director. He wanted me to go over to Lewisham every day and sit in an office. Well, I wasn't prepared to do this, really. At that time, I knew perfectly well that my forte was running research. I wouldn't have worked as the chief engineer of a big group at that time. My interests were at Boreham Wood. But I had to do it. For a year I had a car and a driver. Bagrit didn't like it much that I had a driver, but he couldn't say no, because that was part of it.

So I used to drive over to Lewisham with my secretary each day, deal with things, and then drive home in the evening. There was an attempt at a fair amount of interference in Boreham Wood, but it didn't get far, because my people were all far too loyal to me. I knew this couldn't go on forever. My people at Boreham Wood didn't know about this really. They thought that everything in the garden was lovely, that it was all right as long as what I said went. If the day came when what I said didn't go, then I would obviously have to get out. Well, they were living in a fool's paradise. Lord Halsbury, who was head of NRDC at that time, was paying for the development of the 401, the commercial computer. But he couldn't go on to the production of it at that time. Although he did in the end when Ferranti's Pegasus came out, because Bill Elliott and his people had moved on there after I left. Bill Elliott has been questioning why I didn't give Halsbury warning that I was going to go. (This question has been raised over the last year.) And I didn't, of course, because I made the decision while Bagrit was in America.

Ross sent me some memo, because while Bagrit was away he was nominally in charge. I've forgotten now what it was, but he produced some memo behind my back, which I couldn't accept. So then I made the decision within a few hours that this was the end. This is when the break comes. So I sent a cable to Bagrit saying "I'm resigning." I couldn't tell anybody about it before that, obviously, could I? The situation was such that I hoped they would all get together at Boreham Wood to resist, but they weren't able to do so in the end. Perhaps I ought to have known that they wouldn't. It was a very direct break. Bagrit was very hurt that I cabled him. But he really couldn't grumble very severely because he brought it on himself. I rang Baker, the head of the department at Cambridge, that evening. I thought he might want me to go and join him there, which he did. It took us a full six months to organize, but he wanted it. Although a lot of other people were after me, I decided that this was what I wanted to do.

Cambridge Postgraduate Program

Aspray:

Why did you want to do that?

Coales:

Because I come from a teaching family, I reckon, and it had come out in my blood. I wanted to get postgraduate work going. I thought that we needed the brighter people in Industry to get back into university for a year — a full-time course for a year. Otherwise they got their noses too hard to the grindstone in industry. This had happened to some of my brightest people.

Aspray:

And Cambridge didn't have an appropriate program for those students?

Coales:

Not at that time. Fortunately, Baker had some money set aside for a postgraduate course, which he wanted me to get going.

Aspray:

Was Cambridge strong in electronics at the time?

Coales:

Not really. I developed a course in control engineering. I had got involved with control first in connection with direction finding back in 1930. I had always been involved in instruments and control, having built up fire control systems. We led the world in H/F D/F in the very early years.

I've really been unbelievably fortunate. I went to Cambridge in 1952. Then in 1955 or 1956, Samuel came over from IBM and asked me out to dinner. IBM wanted to set up long-term research laboratories in England, and Samuel asked me if I would take on the job. So, I said that I wouldn't because I had decided what I wanted to do in Cambridge. He said, "Well, you must do it for something." I said, "Well, it would be an awful lot of money." He asked how much money, and I told him five thousand a year, which was a lot of money in 1955. But he would have paid it, and IBM did later, to Bill Elliott actually, two years later. Unfortunately, I couldn't suggest Bill Elliott then because he had only just gone to Ferranti. I suggested another chap, but they decided he wasn't good enough. They then decided that they couldn't find anybody they wanted to do it, so in the end they took it to Rushlicon. IBM got Ambrose Speiser to direct it. I have been unbelievably fortunate, as you can see.

Aspray:

Did you have a personal research career at Cambridge?

Coales:

Yes, I've done some research in the last forty years, but I've really had an awful lot of unbelievably able people. I had one of the biggest research divisions in Cambridge. We had between forty-five and fifty research students in my laboratory. We had very powerful computers, including a very big hybrid computer. We did an enormous amount of work. These people all came to join me. They were all much better research workers than I will ever be or ever have been. I get the kudos; it's all most unfair! They all think I'm marvelous. They all keep in touch with me. I have old students all over the world.

Aspray:

Who are some of these people?

Coales:

Jim Ham at Toronto — well, he wasn't one of my research students, Davidson at Toronto and Murray Wonham. My former students are all over the world — Indians, Sri Lankans, Australians. But the truth of the matter is that good research simply depends on good teams. And the good teams depend on one or two outstanding people in them. Then the research progresses. If you are lucky to be the leader of that, for some reason which is inexplicable — Clearly, one has something, a little bit of talent of some sort, but there's a great deal of luck in this. This is all I'm saying. It's all a question of the thing coming right at some stage. Provided you can get a few good people together, it will then grow. That's what happened at Elliotts. After two years we were two hundred people. After four years we were four hundred. And we had a terrific reputation.

Similarly at Cambridge, I was very fortunate. I had a few people and they didn't resent me or anything, they got on with me. They had a bit of faith in me, I don't know why, and then we made our name. One of the things I wanted to work on was non-linear control systems. One of my first research students was John Barrett. He did some seminal work on this, and we published a report. This work was funded by the Ministry of Supply money, which I had to get me going when we started. There were a number of copies of this report in the library at MIT, which were in continual use. Barrett was then able to work with Lotfi Zadeh at Columbia for a year. We were just lucky. We were well known. People wanted to come and see: many of them commonwealth fellows.

Aspray:

Did you have interactions with Maurice Wilkes?

Coales:

Certainly I did. I have known him ever since the war. He and I always got on extremely well together. Maurice Wilkes is at heart an engineer. He's a very good engineer too; I mean that's why EDSAC worked, because his engineering was good. His idea of using the EF-50 valve in that was basically a brilliant piece of engineering.

IEE and IEEE

Aspray:

Let me change topics quite drastically. You mentioned that you could tell me something about the relations over time between IEE and IEEE. Do you want to remark about that?

Coales:

Hah! I'm quite prepared to remark about it. I may have to think where to begin. Back in the 1960s, when Fink was Director of the IEEE, and Gainsborough was secretary of IEEE, they were very good friends. The IEE has had an international following throughout the British Commonwealth. We still have committees even now, but at that time, there were committees in India, Sri Lanka, Australia, Canada, you name it, all across the world. Our presidents have always gone on a world tour to one or another part of the empire, as well as South America. British influence in South America dates back to the turn of the century. We built the railways in Argentina. I was worried about the enormous number of Indian members we were getting. At one time I thought we might be absolutely swamped out with them! In the 1960s, the IEEE decided that it wanted to be a world organization, in electronics. Electronics had a bad time in the IEE, which was all power engineering years ago.

Electronics was quite a powerful section, but very jealous of its position in this institution, and we allowed the British IRE to break off. This institution did very badly. Kenneth Brasher, who preceded Gainsborough as Secretary, was a power man, and was not interested in electronics. So a situation arose where the IEEE and the IEE were going quite different ways. Of course, we were the first, that's why we're still the IEE, and the IEEE had to become IEEE in order to get away from having "American" in front of it. I'm sure this was one of the reasons why it happened. The IEEE, back in the 1960s, didn't like this fact; they probably thought we were terribly snooty anyway! IEEE decided they wanted to set up EUROCON. They had the other CONs, and they wanted EUROCON. They came over and organized EUROCON without consulting the VDE or the other institutions in Europe. The Europeans got upset about this and in 1970 they asked George Nelson, who was president of the IEE, to lead them in a sort of campaign.

I'm not sure how this went. I met Hal Chestnut with Bob Tanner, when he was president, in Switzerland I believe. I think we were based in the Park hotel in Lausanne in Switzerland. Hal Chestnut had been a very close friend of mine for many years. But Tanner and I almost had a stand-up row. I don't know whether they had been needling him over EUROCON or something, but he was in the mood to put me down. He was a Canadian anyway. He said, "Well, what experience does the IEE have of running international conferences?" We'd been running the international radio conference for many years. We've run the IFAC congress, an enormous congress since 1966, when I was president of IFAC. Then Hal Chestnut became president of IEEE when I was president of the IEE, so that was fine. No problem. We got the Europeans organized. We got EUROCON sensibly organized with the IEEE and the Europeans taking joint responsibility. As far as I know, since then we haven't had any really serious problems. It was quite evident to me that the IEEE and the IEE had to go different ways anyway. There's quite a lot of sense in us having relatively close links with the old Commonwealth — India, Africa, and so on. We had taken an attitude over this for many years, which was contrary to the IEEE attitude. We felt we must support the local engineering institutions in India and African countries, and not be the leading engineering institution in their countries. We had always taken the view that we would have a committee for electrical engineering, which would work closely with the local institution of engineers.

We weren't very bothered about the differences between civil, mechanical and electrical engineering in these respects. Similarly with an institution of engineers in Australia, and in New Zealand, and so on, not an individual electrical institution. Whereas the IEEE's policy was to be the major electronic organization in countries throughout the world, which is a different attitude. Barring this, as far as I know, we have never fallen out much, except over this EUROCON business, with Tanner, which was smoothed out. There was a problem in Canada, but that was a different problem because the Institution of Engineers of Canada was feeling that they were being rather bullied by the IEEE in Canada. But by and large it works out all right. We have an IEEE section in this country. This does tend to annoy me every now and again, because they will set up a little control meetings without reference to anybody, neither the IEE institution, nor IFAC. But by and large it doesn't impinge in any undesirable way.

Aspray:

What value is there to the typical British electrical engineer of being a member of the IEEE? What is its role in the UK?

Coales:

Many of us are members. The fellowship of the IEEE is, quite properly, highly regarded. I was on the fellow selection committee of the IEEE for some time and the selection for fellowship is very thorough. We don't have anything like that in this country. So people are put up for fellowship. Every now and again, the IEEE does something useful here, but its role in the UK is minor.

Aspray:

Is the role of the IEEE more significant in terms of publications then?

Coales:

I see a little bit of them now and again. I think the IEEE should take the view that the IEE is, after all, a well-established institution. It's the biggest institution in the world after the IEEE. Therefore, they needn't worry about what goes on here, but just keep friendly relations with IEE. This was the attitude, without any question, when Hal Chestnut and Ivan Getting were presidents. We worked together over the years very well. We don't in fact clash in other parts of the world, as a rule. We leave most parts of the world to the IEEE, because their organization, in general is better in other parts of the world than ours is, I think.

Notes added by interviewee:

  1. Published in two volumes by the MacMillan Press, London, 1995.
  2. The archives are now in Churchill College Archive Centre.
  3. Midshipman.